Today's Fun Foodstuff

Tom Fitzmorris February 05, 2020 21:18 Almanac

Wednesday, February, 5th, 2020

Ruth. Sunset. Sirloin Strip. Steakman Branch. Vitamin Man. Beef Biscuit. Mammoth Jell-O. Naked Lunch.

Great Local Restaurateurs  

Ruth Fertel was born in New Orleans today in 1927. She is the Ruth of Ruth's Chris Steakhouse, the restaurant she bought for $18,000 from Chris Matulich in 1965. By the time she was finished with it, she was the most successful female restaurateur in the world, with nearly 100 locations of the top-end steakhouse, in every city that mattered. She was an overachiever all her life, skipping grades in school and starting college in her mid-teens, majoring in chemistry and physics. She was working as a researcher at Tulane University when she saw an ad to sell Chris Steak House. Even in 1965, it was recognized as one of the two or three best places to get a steak in New Orleans, with prime beef sizzling in butter. She mortgaged her house and used her savings to buy it. Chris took the money and left her to figure it all out on her own. Figure it out she did. Her principal idea was that her customers could have anything they wanted all the time. You didn't have to find your waitress to ask; anybody on the staff (including Ruth herself) would fetch you more butter. She charged you well for this, but long before Outback claimed it, there were no rules at Ruth's Chris. It became far more than just a steakhouse. The Ruth's Chris on Broad Street was for decades the meeting place of the alpha males of the community. Ruth sold her restaurant chain--the biggest of its kind in America--in 1999. In the three years left in her life, she became a philanthropist, underwriting among other things a culinary arts center at Nicholls State University. She died in 2002.

I was lucky enough to have dined with Ruth a few times. She was a fascinating person. At our first meeting, she chewed me out for some things I said in a review. My complaint was that the au gratin dishes had too much cheese. "We give them what they want!" she retorted. "You wouldn't believe how many people ask for extra cheese! Some people want cheese on a steak, and you know that's crazy. But we give it to them!" The next time--and every time thereafter--she was as friendly as can be. Inside dope: she always said that her best steak was not the best-selling filet mignon, but the sirloin strip. No question about that. She also said that her own favorite dish on her menu was the veal chop.

Dining On Wheels  

Today in 1883, the second transcontinental railroad in America was completed, creating a continuous line from New Orleans to San Francisco. The Southern Pacific's Sunset Route is the southernmost of the transcontinentals, and the one that crosses the least mountainous terrain. The last rail was spiked down (with a silver spike) just west of the Pecos River near Langtry, Texas. The new line helped move California produce to the rest of America, and more than a few bottles of wine traveled the Sunset Route. You can still ride the whole thing on its namesake train, the Sunset Limited, the oldest passenger train name in America. Some of my most memorable train rides have been on that train. I remember in particular an unexpectedly superb prime rib in its dining car in the summer of 1978, somewhere in Arizona.

Food Calendar  

In honor of Ruth Fertel--and also noting that this is the earliest possible date for Mardi Gras, which celebrates a farewell to beef before Lent--today is Sirloin Strip Day. The strip is, in my opinion, the finest-flavored, most interesting steak in the beef. The benefits of high grade and dry-aging are realized most fully in this cut, with its heavy, tight texture. Detractors call it a little chewy, and it is certainly less tender than a filet mignon or a ribeye. On the other hand, it's much less fibrous than the hanger steak, flatiron steak, skirt steak, and other currently hip cuts.

Steakhouses usually play down their strip. The strip is usually the most expensive steak in the steakhouse. You only rarely see it offered as a lunch special. Although the filet starts out at a higher price, a strip requires more trimming before people will accept it. Only the thinnest rind, if that, can remain along the top side, and little or none of the mixed-fat-and-lean tail. Also, if the restaurant serves prime beef at all, this will be the cut that will be prime. The connoisseurs don't need to be sold on it. It's where the major steakhouses know they must put their best foot forward. The goodness of a strip varies quite a bit, depending on which end of the loin it's cut from. The best strips are shaped like a wedge, with none of the tough "vein" that appears on the inferior end of the loin.

Marbling is critical for the strip. A well-marbled steak will have little flecks and streaks of fat running through the lean--the more of them you see, the better the steak will be. Prime beef should show a good deal of marbling but doesn't always. On the other hand, I often see very well-marbled strips in the supermarket, labeled as Choice or even the lower Select grade. That's why hand-selected steaks are the best.

I am campaigning to have steakhouses cut thick sirloin strips into two thick pieces the size and shape of a filet mignon. This, I propose, should be called the "New Orleans cut" steak. We've had it done that way at a couple of Eat Club dinners, and it's superb.

Edible Dictionary  

shell steak, n.--An old name for the sirloin strip, especially when still on the whole loin. After the tenderloin is cut off the short loin (where the T-bones and porterhouse steaks come from), the bone that covers the remaining meat resembles a shell. Underneath is the strip loin, which when cut into steaks gives us sirloin strips.

Delicious-Sounding Places  

Steakman Branch is a little mountain creek in the forested, coal-mining westernmost finger of the state, 159 miles west of Roanoke. It's the kind of isolated countryside where one might well encounter a guy making moonshine behind his cabin. The branch pours into streams that wind up at the Clinch River, a major tributary of the Tennessee River. "Branch water" is supposed to be the best thing to mix with Kentucky bourbon, because it's clean and clear. This one just might be. The nearest restaurant is six miles east in Raven: Ralph's Country Club.

The Old Kitchen Sage Sez: The thicker the steak, the better it cooks.

Deft Dining Rule #782: If a restaurant's steak selection doesn't include a sirloin strip, the place is not seriously a steak specialist.

Annals Of Food Research 


Lafayette Benedict Mendel was born today in 1872. He spent most of his career discovering which elements of food made it nutritious. He made a major contribution to our understanding of vitamins; he was one of the discoverers of Vitamins A and B. . . Today in 1850, Gail Borden--who would make his fortune a few years later by inventing a process for making condensed milk--created a meat-enhanced biscuit that carried a lot of protein to the eater (he had the soldier in mind), but lasted for a long time without losing its goodness. It could also be used to make soup. Why does this suggest dog biscuits to us?

World Food Records


The biggest bowl of Jell-O ever made--7700 gallons--was completed in Brisbane, Australia today in 1981. The flavor was watermelon. It cost $14,000, but it made Guinness.

Food In Literature 


William S. Burroughs was born today in 1914. He was one of the Beat Generation's favorite writers, and his novels were shocking in their time. The one with the food title was Naked Lunch, but it is more about drugs than lunch.

Food Namesakes   

Robert Peel, who established the London police force, was born today in 1788. The British cops are still called "bobbies" for him. . . Actress Barbara Hershey was born today in 1948. . . Today in 2001, William D. Baker ran amok at a diesel engine factory and killed four people, then himself. . . . Sugar Ray Leonard won his first pro fight today in 1977. . . Diego Serrano, a TV soap opera actor, was born today in 1973. . . Olympic rower Pete "Chip" Cipollone was born today in 1971. . . Canadian hockey commentator and former pro hockey player Don Cherry was born today in 1934. His nickname is also edible: Grapes.

Words To Eat By   

"Soup does its loyal best, no matter what undignified conditions are imposed upon it. You don't catch steak hanging around when you're poor and sick, do you?"--Judith Martin (Miss Manners).



New Orleans Cut Strip Sirloin Steak with True Bordelaise Sauce


  • 1 bottle red Bordeaux wine or Cabernet Sauvignon

  • 2 sprigs fresh thyme

  • 10 black peppercorns

  • 2 whole shallots, finely chopped

  • 1 cup intense beef or veal stock

  • 4 Tbs. butter

  • Salt

  • 2 boneless strip sirloin steaks, about 24 oz. each, cut about two inches thick

  • 6 Tbs. butter


Make the sauce first; it will take about an hour, although most of this needs little attention. In a saucepan, bring the wine to a simmering boil with the thyme, peppercorns, and shallots. Reduce slowly to 1 cup of liquid.

Cut each of the steaks into two pieces resembling filets mignon. Generously season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Leave them out on the counter, covered with a sheet of waxed paper, for about a half-hour.

In a heavy skillet over medium-high heat, heat 2 Tbs. butter until it sizzles. Put the steaks into the pan and sear them. They will stick to the pan at first. When they begin to break loose, turn them and sear the other side. When both sides are seared, move the steaks to a metal baking pan in the preheated oven at 375 degrees.

Strain the wine and the stock into a skillet and bring to a light boil while whisking to dissolve the juices and browned bits from the steaks. Reduce by about half over medium heat.

Check the steaks with a meat thermometer. For medium-rare, look for 130 degrees. When they reach that point, turn the oven off and leave the oven door ajar.

Remove the sauce skillet from the heat and whisk in the remaining butter. Adjust seasonings with salt and pepper. Serve the steaks with the sauce right over them, saving some for adding later.